Cricket: Young guard of England await the call

Silverwood, Maddy and Irani likely to step up should the selectors opt for fresh talent
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The Independent Online
LAST THURSDAY night in a drab Northampton hotel, the three men charged with lifting the spirits of the cricketing public met to discuss the future. Having bounced names and opinions off each other as well as the walls, they will meet again this evening to see if their views have changed. If they have, no one should be surprised, for this is the nature of that behemoth called English county cricket.

On the face of it, the task, as it has been for countless selectors before them, would appear to be a simple one: find 11 players from a pool of around 200 who can regularly win cricket matches for England. The reality though is far different and, as England's poor results in recent years have shown, excessive choice can be a curse, especially when the quality is moderate.

This in turn is compounded when the public cry goes up to blood young talent. In a system that has yet make a regular Test player out of a county colossus like Graeme Hick, how on earth do you pick between those of more modest achievements?

It is not easy, which is why Nasser Hussain, Duncan Fletcher and David Graveney would be wise to limit such changes to just one or two places. Filling a blank sheet with 10 new names, as was implied after the last Test, is about as likely as a chimpanzee coming up with As You Like It with only a banana and a word processor for company.

New faces can lift the mood, but only if they are motivated to play for England. From what I hear, most are not, which is probably one reason for the lack of hunger and determination that seems to ooze from every young Aussie's pore.

At the moment, the best young county cricketers earn around pounds 30,000 for five months' work, drive sponsored cars and go abroad for winter. It is a comfortable life, which is why so few appear desperate to make the step up to Test level, where despite the extra rewards, the added pressure and the odd media feeding frenzy can make life miserable.

If that sounds unfair, you only have to recall the debut of 21-year-old Mark Lathwell against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1993. The England captain then was Graham Gooch, who recalled that Lathwell looked utterly out of place.

"When you compared him with Michael Slater, who at just 10 months older looked streetwise and up for it, I suddenly realised our county system was producing naive cricketers," Gooch said. At the time, Lathwell said he could not wait to get back to Somerset and his local pub.

Not much has changed. Indeed, out of the three other England debutants in that match - Mark Ilott, Graham Thorpe and Martin McCague - only Thorpe, who scored a hundred in the second innings, has gone on to be a regular, though that may soon end unless he stops his sulking and starts getting some runs.

Hussain, who batted at No 7 in that match, will know that whatever fresh faces there are brought in, they cannot be left too exposed. However, with Mark Butcher likely to be dropped on his home ground, someone will have to face the new ball. A prime candidate, especially now his feet are moving again, would be Alec Stewart, though in order to give England the balance they need with the ball he will probably keep wicket and bat at No 6 or No 7.

This means either Darren Maddy or Michael Vaughan, both A team regulars, will take guard with Michael Atherton while Chris Read, a certainty to tour South Africa in the winter, will miss out. At 20, Read looks a decent prospect, but there are improvements to be made. It is hoped that his mixed experiences at Test level will inspire him to improve, rather than make him seek solace in the soft pastures of county cricket.

At present, form favours Maddy, while Vaughan's ability to bowl tidy off-spin means he could fill a role should England decide to play just one specialist spinner. Unless the pitch is going to turn on the second day, England cannot afford to play both Peter Such and Phil Tufnell, particularly as Alan Mullally - another non-contributing batsman - is set to return.

It is the lack of runs down - as well as up - the order that has seen Northamptonshire's off-spinning all-rounder Graeme Swann come to prominence. As a spinner he is not as gifted as his team-mates Michael Davies or Jason Brown, the latter currently languishing in the county second team.

Swann would therefore have to offer himself as that increasingly rare beast, the all-rounder. Others have pretensions to the crown and it would be unfair, if current form were to be used, to dismiss either Ronnie Irani and Craig White from returning to bat at No 7 and bowl 15 overs a day. Gavin Hamilton, Yorkshire's Scot, has also caught the eye, though he has hamstring problems and is unable to bowl.

Neither are new faces, merely rejuvenated ones. Irani is loud and brash; White, quiet and shy. Both have had their chances with England before, which will make any return a pressure game with a winter tour at stake.

Hussain, despite his absence from Essex's current match against the New Zealanders, is certain to play at The Oval. Together with Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash, another who must stop feeling the world is against him, the captain will head the middle order.

For those who feel that the likes of David Sales or Andy Flintoff should be given their chance, here is an observation. They have talent and power, but they play shots, not innings. Test matches demand the latter, which rely on good technique and shot selection. Ramprakash has taken this to extremes recently, but at least he appears to prefer the crease to the dressing-room.

The bowling, more impressive than the batting, still misses Darren Gough's cutting edge. Andy Caddick and Mullally have both had their moments, but consistency and imagination has been lacking when the pitches have flattened out as they did at Lord's and Manchester, and will do at The Oval.

Without Gough or Alex Tudor, and with an injury to Dean Headley's shoulder, Chris Silverwood will perhaps get a chance to add to the single cap he won in Zimbabwe three winters ago. Since then he has gained a yard in pace and a bushel's worth in confidence.

Ed Giddins also stands a decent chance of making the squad. Since his ban for testing positive to cocaine two years ago, Giddins has bowled with pace and verve, swinging the new ball away from the right-hander. With The Oval reportedly aiding conventional swing this season (it never used to) Giddins could well make his debut.

At 28, Giddins is not young but his unconventional approach would certainly leaven a dressing-room burdened by defeat and defeatism. Hussain may not be about to risk all on a new young team, but he could do worse than bring in the likes of Irani and Giddins to liven the place up.

PRINGLE'S XIII

N Hussain

M A Atherton

D L Maddy

G P Thorpe

M R Ramprakash

A J Stewart

R C Irani

A R Caddick

P C R Tufnell or P M Such

G P Swann

A J Mullally

E S H Giddins

C E W Silverwood

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